Episode 157: How the “Culture Wars” Label Obscures and Trivializes Life-and-Death Political Issues

Citations Needed | March 9, 2022 | Transcript

Citations Needed
58 min readMar 9, 2022
Bill Clinton, next to Jesse Jackson, denounces Sister Souljah at a 1992 Rainbow Coalition conference.


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Nima: “Let the Culture Wars Begin. Again,” announces The New York Times. “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy,” warns Politico. “As The Culture Wars Shift, President Trump Struggles To Adapt,” NPR tells us. “Will Democrats Go on the Offensive in the Culture Wars?” wonders Vanity Fair.

Adam: Over and over, we’re reminded that so-called “culture wars” are being waged between a simplified left and right. Depending on who you ask, they tend to encompass issues under broad categories: LGBTQ rights, abortion, funding for the arts, policing, immigration, and so-called family values. While there is some validity to the label of “culture war” — say, Republican opposition to an art installation, or tantrums over the gender of the green M&M — most of the time, the term is woefully misapplied.

Nima: Despite what much of the media claims, LGBTQ rights, police violence, abortion, and so many other issues aren’t just “culture war” fluff in the same league as the latest Fox News meltdown about a cartoon character. Nor are they both-sides-able matters of debate. They’re matters of real, material consequence, often with life-and-death stakes. So why is it that these are placed under the same “culture war” umbrella? And what are the dangers of characterizing them that way?

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll discuss the vague nature of the term “culture war”; how this lack of clarity is weaponized to gloss over and minimize life-and-death issues like police violence and gender-affirming healthcare and immigration; and how the only consistent criterion for a “culture war” seems to be issues that impact someone other than the media’s default audience of white professional middle class men.

Nima: Later on the show we’ll speak with Max Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief of The Real News Network, and host of the Working People podcast. His book, The Work of Living, will be published by OR Books in the Spring of 2022.

[Begin Clip]

Max Alvarez: This discussion about avoiding quote-unquote “culture war” issues and focusing on quote-unquote “kitchen table” or “kitchen sink” issues is posed as a neutral big tent strategy, you know, how do we market ourselves in a way that brings the most people into this political coalition? And I think we’ve all acknowledged that that is not the case, that’s bullshit. What you were doing as you were making active choices about which constituencies matter more to you and which constituencies matter less.

[End Clip]

Adam: Anyone who, of course, who’s watched any cable punditry or read any opinion pieces over the past 30 years or so has heard the concept of culture war over and over again.

[Begin News Clip Montage]

Woman #1: We’re witnessing the newest evolution of the culture wars.

Man #1: We’re gonna keep this culture war conversation going.

Man #2: Gay rights that are advancing around the country. Are the culture wars back in the midterms?

Man #3: Because again, people, this isn’t about books, right? This is about keeping the culture war going for political benefits.

Woman #2: And I also think it is part of a little cultural war, not little, but it’s going on within the Democratic Party.

Man #4: The state is in a constant culture war.

Hillary Clinton: Can’t get distracted, whether it’s by the latest culture war nonsense.

Woman #3: The fact is, the culture war works to the benefit of Republicans. It’s been doing it for 50 years.

Man #5: President Trump is silent on all of this, but we’re learning he continues to stoke culture wars and intends to do so tonight.

Man #6: CRT is not taught in K through 12 schools, but it’s nonetheless become the latest flashpoint in the country’s culture wars.

Woman #4: Coming up next for us, Republicans find new culture wars to fight.

Man #7: A base, you know, firing up a culture war event.

[End News Clip Montage]

Adam: Typically, and increasingly, the concept of culture war, Nima, is something that is viewed as, again, it has a slippery definition, but broadly speaking, when someone hears culture war, this seems like something that is axiomatically trivial, that is automatically not really that important or something that is negotiable or can be transaction with some other issue that is deemed of some importance, and what we found interesting about this term, and this is something that I wrote about in the Substack and we’ve talked about for some time now, is how the word culture war, the label “culture war,” kind of as the ultimate scope creep. It goes from being about things that may seem trivial or that we could say are trivial, like, for example, some debate on college campuses about whether or not Banh Mi iss cultural appropriation, something that sort of may seem a little bit esoteric or unimportant, to encompass things that are obviously important and affect millions of people like the basic humanity of trans people or immigration or police violence, and we found that interesting how basically without much notice the word culture war went from sort of Piss Christ, which isn’t to say its initial origins weren’t about trivializing issues for non straight white men, I mean, abortion was all has been long been called a culture war, we’ll get into that, gay rights were culture war issue, how the basic rights, humanity and dignity of people who, again, don’t look like Adam Johnson, are viewed as being somehow of secondary importance, second class issues and their culture because culture so to seem selective, it seems like you prefer rock music, I like country music, its culture.

Nima: Yeah. I think culture has this notion of it’s just hot frivolity. It’s the things that are kind of benign, unimportant, not like serious political issues, right? And so you get statements like this one recently from February 21, 2022 from Slate writer, Jordan Weissman, who tweeted this quote, “Like, if we’re really on the verge of total abyss, maybe Democrats need to offer some serious concessions on culture war issues that are fueling these conflicts in return for institutional reforms? Hoping Republicans take responsibility just because it doesn’t seem too wise,” end quote. So it’s this idea that why do Democrats, and by extension, left of center progressives, liberals, even leftists, why are these quote-unquote “culture wars” sucking up so much of the political oxygen that should be spent dealing with, what people like Jordan Weissman are saying, are more important issues as if institutional racism and even the tearing down of say a Confederate statue — not that that’s exactly what he’s talking about but he didn’t itemize what he means by culture wars — which is actually part of the point that we’re making here, Adam.

Adam: I asked him, I said, can you list your top five culture wars you think that we should punt on and he never answered. I know people offline have asked him and he didn’t answer either.

Nima: Because “culture war” is supposed to encapsulate everything that whoever is using that term deems unimportant, unserious, and that can extend, as you’ve said, Adam, all the way from the gender of the green M&M to defunding the police.

Adam: Right. So we should start by giving some history about where the concept of “culture war” comes from. Our current understanding of culture wars really emerged in the late ’80s and ’90s. Although technically one of its precursors for the term “culture war,” and forgive me if I’m butchering this, German listeners, Kulturkampf, a German term for “culture struggle” that arose in 1870s Prussia. The term originally referred to the legal battle between the Catholic Church and the Prussian government under right-wing nationalist Otto von Bismarck for state power. It now more commonly denotes a conflict between political factions or tendencies.

Otto von Bismarck, 1870

Nima: But the way we understand it today, the term “culture war” would appear vaguely and occasionally throughout the 1970s and ’80s in various contexts, used by scholars in the fields of psychology, humanities, and others. But its meanings eventually began to coalesce, and usage of the term began to skyrocket in the early ’90s coinciding with the PC boom. Now the term began making the rounds in news media in 1990, as neocons responded to actual cultural products, things like film, television, and art they perceived as too transgressive.

Now, in the mid- to late ’80s, the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA, issued grants to multiple institutional arts programs. Part of these grants went toward funding the work of artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom produced imagery deemed obscene by lawmakers like Senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D’Amato as well as the fundamentalist American Family Association, the AFA. In 1989, Scott Tyler, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, created an installation featuring a photo collage incorporating shots of flag-draped coffins and South Korean people burning an American flag, as well as an American flag on the floor extending outward from the wall. Now, Tyler — who later adopted the professional moniker ‘Dread Scott’, had not received NEA funding for his art installation, but was nevertheless lumped in with work that did and much maligned by right-wing forces. This led to a series of calls to defund the NEA, couched in a more general panic over what this type of art actually represented.

In a May 1989 column for the Washington Times, former Reagan White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan likened two of these exhibits to the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, bemoaning that, quote, “the downhill slide of American culture gathers momentum,” end quote. Buchanan also quoted conservative art critic James Cooper, stating: ‘the war is raging on the battlefield of the arts within our own borders.’”

Adam: And according to author Thomas R. Lindlof, quote:

This was one of the first times the ‘war’ metaphor had been used in reference to disputes about the nation’s culture. As the issue of rap music lyrics grew heated in 1989 — especially with the release of 2 Live Crew’s controversial album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, accelerating pressure on the major record companies to adopt a uniform warning label — and the AFA pressed its campaigns against advertisers sponsoring violent and indecent TV programs, the idea of a permanent, warring split over the purposes and effects of popular culture began to take hold.

Nima: So the next year, 1990, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde penned an influential essay in the National Review that stated this, quote:

America is involved in a Kulturkampf, a war between cultures and a war about the meaning of ‘culture.’ By ‘culture war,’ I don’t mean arguments over the relative merits of Mozart and Beethoven, ‘Henry V’ on stage and ‘Henry V’ on screen, Elliot and Auden, Tom Wolfe and E.L. Doctorow. I mean the struggle between those who believe that the norms of ‘bourgeois morality’ (which is drawn in the main from classic Jewish and Christian morality) should form the ethical basis of our common life and those who are determined these norms will be replaced with a radical and thorough-going moral relativism. That is the division in our house.

End quote.

Adam: Yeah, note, it’s the sort of classic Judeo-Christian morality which is really just Christian morality, they like to throw in the Judeo so they don’t seem like they’re being Christian supremacists, it gives it some sort of cultural continuity. We talked about that before. That’s basically a code for the quote-unquote “West” or white supremacist institutions being morally superior. The Jewish part is kind of just thrown in there for good measure. They don’t really care about Jewish culture.

Nima: Now, later that same year 1990, Buchanan was back endorsing Hyde’s argument in his own syndicated column. Buchanan would subsequently become synonymous with this culture war framing, which we’re going to talk about in a bit, but he wrote this in 1990, quote:

There is method in this madness. The flag defiled, pictures desecrating symbols of Christ, use of kids as sex objects, these are designed not to challenge and stimulate, but to insult and inflame.

But, given that 90 percent of Americans are revolted, what kind of politics is it? Answer: It is not politics. It is war, cultural war, religious war. Desecrations of the flag are a way of saying America is filth. Sacrilegious art seeks to dethrone the God of Christianity, replacing Him with the gods of the new pagan faith. The arts militants are defending Mapplethorpe’s pictures with all the ferocity with which early Christians defended their icons.

End quote.

Adam: The following year in 1991, James Davison Hunter released the book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter is commonly credited with launching the term “culture wars” into the popular lexicon. The book was a kind of precursor to the contemporary narratives of “polarization” in the US: It argued that, starting in roughly the 1960s, religious conservatives — Christian fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics — were in conflict with secular and religious liberals over issues like “abortion, funding for the arts, women’s rights, gay rights, court-packing” and proposed ways to turn these “conflicts” into “enriching democratic debate.”

Hunter had thus lain the groundwork for media framings of the “culture wars,” that issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights weren’t matters of urgent material needs the consequences of which could throw people into poverty because of getting fired or because they don’t have control over their sexual faculties. Instead, they were abstract, intractable conflicts of cultural preference and cultural differences that can kind of be negotiated, not material issues of economic security. Another one of the best-known uses of the term followed the next year when Pat Buchanan spoke at the 1992 Republican convention, cementing the right-wing character of the culture war framing.

[Begin Clip]

Pat Buchanan: Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. But this war is for the soul of America, and in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side.

[End Clip]

Adam: That’s some good red meat. That’s some good red meat.

Nima: Yeah, also “Clinton and Clinton.” Note, Hillary Clinton was not running for office, but never to be outdone, Bill Clinton got involved himself. That very same year, 1992, saw another high-profile event that would be framed as fodder for the “culture wars.” This was, during the campaign, Bill Clinton’s condemnation of rapper Sister Souljah. On May 13, 1992, the Washington Post published what would become a much-cited, and much-misrepresented, interview with Sister Souljah after the Los Angeles uprisings of that year protesting the police beating of Rodney King. The rapper explained that the uprisings weren’t simply senseless violence, as they were portrayed in news media at the time, but a reaction to the violence that the state had long inflicted upon Black people.

Washington Post staff writer David Mills asked Sister Souljah about the uprisings. This is the exchange that was published:

Mills asks, quote:

Even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think it was wise? Was that wise, reasoned action?

Sister Souljah responds this way, quote:

Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that Black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above and beyond dying, when they would kill their own kind?

Mills responds:

I’m just asking what’s the wisdom in it? What’s the sense in it?

Sister Souljah responds this way, quote:

It’s rebellion, it’s revenge. You ever heard of Hammurabi’s Code? Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? It’s revenge. I mean, that seems so simple. I don’t even understand why anybody {would} ask me that question. You take something from me, I take something from you. You cut me, I cut you. You shoot me, I shoot you. You kill my mother, I kill your mother.

End quote.

Adam: This was a flashpoint for Bill Clinton, who was a Democratic presidential candidate at the time. At a June 1992 event for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Bill Clinton, under the advice of James Carville, whose idea this was, condemned Sister Souljah for what he perceived to be inciting violence against white people and took one of her quotes out of context to illustrate his point. The statement, which would become immortalized as his “Sister Souljah moment,” captured loads of media attention. Here’s a clip of Clinton; for some background on the clip, Sister Souljah had been part of a Rainbow Coalition panel the night before.

[Begin Clip]

Bill Clinton: You had a rap singer here last night, named Sister Souljah, I defend her right to express herself through music, but her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight. Just listen to this, what she said. She told The Washington Post about a month ago and I quote, “…if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? …So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?” Last year, she said, “You can’t call me or any Black person anywhere in the world a racist, we don’t have the power to do to white people what white people have done to us, and even if we did, we don’t have that lowdown dirty nature. If there are any good white people, I haven’t met them. Where are they?” Right here in this room. That’s where they are. I know she is a young person, but she has a big influence on a lot of people, and when people say that if you took the words white and Black and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.

[End Clip]

Adam: It’s almost like context matters.

Nima: It’s almost like you can’t just reverse those.

Adam: So this moment was credited with shifting Clinton’s candidacy. In October of 1992, The Chicago Tribune headline wrote, quote, “BILL CLINTON`S DEBT TO SISTER SOULJAH.” It read as follows:

Tracking polls show the incident pretty much marks the upturn in Clinton’s popularity that quickly took him from third place behind Ross Perot to first, where he has remained ever since.

[Sister Souljah] comes up repeatedly in the surveys and focus groups the campaigns conduct to measure the attitudes of white suburban and blue-collar swing voters. They are often called ‘Reagan Democrats,’ because many of them would have walked barefoot over broken glass to vote for the Gipper. But, they might as well be called ‘white-flight Democrats,’ characterized by fear, wariness or outright resentment of growing influence by blacks and liberal advocates for the welfare poor in the Democratic Party.

So this wasn’t a mere throwaway story. It was a clear signal to Clinton’s rightward political leanings and related strategy to distance himself from any trace of social justice activism, specifically Black radical activism, and George HW Bush’s previous presidential campaign which he won he characterized Michael Dukakis as quote “soft on crime.” Of course, he ran the infamous Willie Horton ad. Clinton capitulated to this attempting to court conservatives or he wasn’t capitulating and was just racist. During his presidential run, Clinton promised to, quote, “end welfare as we know it” and to get tough on crime. His campaign staged a photo op with conservative Democratic Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, standing in front of a line of Black inmates from a Georgia boot camp.

Bill Clinton at Stone Mountain Correctional Facility in Georgia, 1992.

Clinton’s proposed policies on public assistance would primarily affect Black and Latino people. It’s no coincidence then that, while in office, Clinton passed a series of laws meant to expand the criminalization of African Americans and reduce the efficacy of welfare.

Nima: Over the course of the next decade, this “culture war” framing no longer referred to just conflicts between liberal-arts provocateurs and Buchanan-style cranks. It really expanded into a vague, catchall term encompassing everything from politicians’ gripes about sitcoms to very serious political issues with extremely high stakes. News media ran with this framing, presenting issues like welfare, abortion, and gay rights not as clear moral issues but as muddy, two-sided culture conflicts, simply matters up for debate, as opposed to having extremely real life-and-death stakes.

Adam: Yeah. So throughout the ’90s, gay rights issues were routinely defined as debates or culture war issues as continually were abortion. One headline from the Baltimore Sun from April of 2000, quote, “Supreme Court rejoins nation’s culture battles.” Quote:

Saving some of the hardest cases for last, the Supreme Court winds up its hearings for the term this week by returning to the nation’s culture wars over abortion and gay rights.

The abortion case, centering on a Nebraska law that both sides refer to as a ‘partial-birth’ abortion ban, is shaping up as a test of whether the court will cut back on the right to abortion declared by the court in 1973 and kept largely intact in a 1992 decision.

So again, whether or not women have control over their reproductive capacity is reduced to a culture war issue.

Nima: Yes, it’s merely a “culture war.”

Adam: It’s a culture war, rather than being a material or economic one. And this continued all the way up until today in the 2020s. So more than 20 years later, not much has really changed. New York Times in August of 2020, “Let the Culture Wars Begin. Again.” This piece argues that, “the 2020 Republican convention is looking strangely like the 1992 edition.” The column by Jennifer Senior of The New York Times wrote, quote:

The [1992 Republican National] convention devolved into an atom-splitting culture war. Speakers decried the dangers of radical feminists (Hillary!). The evils of socialism (Bill wanted health care for all). The depredation of the ‘homosexual rights movement.’ Ted Kennedy was their Bernie. H.R.C. was their A.O.C. The Los Angeles riots — also sparked by a videotaped act of police brutality — were today’s civil unrest.

So culture war here includes police brutality, feminism, abortion — socialism is a cultural issue here too?

Nima: It’s a culture war, I guess.

Adam: Gay rights are culture war issues. NPR, a couple of months prior, wrote, “As The Culture Wars Shift, President Trump Struggles To Adapt.” The article would write:

No modern president has been as aggressive a culture warrior as Donald Trump. He announced his candidacy by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists. He criticized Black athletes who knelt during the national anthem. He championed police officers but promoted rough policing, telling law enforcement officers in a 2017 speech, ‘please don’t be too nice’ when making an arrest. Recently, he announced over Twitter that he would never consider removing the name of Confederate generals from military bases.

And so this is a theme you’ll see again and again where when the right engages in deliberately and explicitly racist rhetoric, it’s dismissed as a culture war issue. So culture war issues work both ways. It’s a way of diminishing left-wing identity based oppression rights issues, and it’s a way of glossing over or kind of making light of conservative, homophobic, sexist, and overtly racist rhetoric and policy.

Nima: That same NPR article would go on to state this, quote:

Culture wars have been part of American politics for decades. Hot-button issues like immigration, family values and respect for the American flag can get a more powerful reaction from voters than dry debates over taxes or Medicare.

But at a time when the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, an economic recession and, above all, heightened levels of racial unrest, the culture wars are changing, and Trump, who has always relished a fight over white identity and culture, is struggling to adjust.

Adam: “White identity and culture” that is the most NPR thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s just white identity and culture Nima, it’s not racism.

Nima: Well, that’s the thing that “culture wars” stands in for anything challenging to what this here is described as “white culture.”

Adam: Well, that’s the default issue. That’s kitchen sink, that’s economic issues, but any form of economic oppression that doesn’t fall along a kind of post racial vector, we view as being culture war, even if they have very little to do with culture.

Nima: Well, things like quote-unquote “family values,” “politics,” and “immigration,” those are not “culture war” issues, right? I mean, those are actual very serious — not that I would say culture wars aren’t serious — but used in this context, to lump all of those under this umbrella term “culture wars,” means that basically anything that isn’t about the national deficit or bombing another country is deemed culture war.

Adam: Right, and so this happens every single time, it’s clear that Democrats are going to either underperform or get their ass kicked in the midterms, groups like Third Way and the DCCC, which is kind of the corporate funded wings of the Democratic Party, they leak these polls or these kind of messaging seminars or PowerPoint presentations, where they basically say that the problem, the reason why Democrats are struggling, is because of the far left. They do this every two years. It’s Bernie, it’s AOC, it’s Russia, it’s Black Lives Matter, more recently, defund the police is their now permanent boogeyman for the next 6, 7, 8 years, and so they released a poll on February 15 of this year, alleging that Democrats running for Congress needed to avoid so-called “culture war” issues, and I said, okay, well, that’s interesting. What are these culture war issues that they need to avoid?

Nima: How do they define culture wars?

Adam: And the only ones they list are police violence and immigration. They write, quote:

When faced with a ‘defund the police’ attack, for instance, the [DCCC officials and operatives] encouraged Democrats to reiterate their support for police. And on immigration, they said Democrats should deny support for ‘open borders or amnesty,’ and talk about their efforts to keep the border safe.

So obviously, police reform and immigration or meaningful police reform, you know, not renaming police stations after Harriet Tubman, but actual police reform, those are not culture issues. Those are economic issues that just happen to disproportionately affect Black and brown people. But that does not make them culture issues. And so it occurred to me, and obviously, we talked about this, that this is a trend that’s been going on for some time, that immigrants don’t travel up from Guatemala through Mexico through hell, travel through the desert without water, to seek economic opportunity because of a cultural whim. It’s not a preference for jazz over country music. It’s not a culture issue. Black people being pulled over by the police and thrown in jail because they had a tail light out and losing their job the next day is not a cultural issue. It’s an economic issue.

Nima: That’s a very real issue, obviously, weaponized to great effect by Republicans, by the right-wing, by white supremacist and white nationalists, to continue to create a certain kind of mythology about the United States and its founding and its history since, but it’s not the same as just a culture war, right? This isn’t some frivolity that maybe Democrats should stop worrying about CRT so we could get down to real politics, real business, because otherwise, they’re just giving, you know, fodder to the white suburban mom who’s terrified about her kids’ elementary school or high school curriculum, and those really aren’t the same things as something benign that would be more appropriate under like a culture war moniker.

Adam: Well, yeah, because the idea, the general assumption is that culture war issues are negotiable, it’s not funding the military for $700 billion, it’s not concerns over the deficit, it’s not, you know, whether or not we should have a military base on every inch of the planet, and it’s a culture, it’s not important. There probably is no more issue of recent note that is oftentimes portrayed as trivial then trans rights or the so-called “trans bathroom” issue, which since 2016, has been held up as this is the height of frivolity, as the height of kind of far left whimsical, precious, selective interests. That really doesn’t affect Joe Kitchen Sink, you know, sitting down after a hard day’s work of punching the clock at the sparks and steam factory to come home and he sits on his couch and all he wants to do is suck down a beer and eat a steak but he’s got to see those goddamn trans people in the latest Comcast commercial, and it just fucking pisses him off, and why don’t we just punt on that so we can move on to the real issues of why we shouldn’t withdraw from Afghanistan or other kind of sort of presumably important issues, right? And so “trans issues,” quote-unquote, are routinely referred to as culture war issues. The Economist from November of 2017, “Making sense of the culture war over transgender identity,” the subhead read, “As more people change gender, they are sparking a debate that enrages some and confuses many.” The quote-unquote “trans bathroom” issue was routinely dismissed as a cultural issue by Bill Maher, by Mark Lilla, in The New York Times, this was by David Brooks, and in 2019, Aaron Sorkin was on Fareed Zakaria on CNN, where he again referred to the “trans bathroom” issue as this kind of frivolous issue that really wasn’t that important.

[Begin Clip]

Aaron Sorkin: There’s a, I think, that there’s a great opportunity here now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non stupid party, to point out the difference that, you know, we are, that it’s not just about transgender bathrooms, that that’s a Republican talking point, they’re trying to distract you with. That, you know, we are, that we haven’t forgotten the economic anxiety of the middle class, but we were going to be smart about this, we’re not going to be mean about it.

[End Clip]

Nima: Now, to be charitable to Aaron Sorkin would be to take this quote to mean that he was rejecting Republicans’ anti-trans cruelty, but I am not that charitable, and also, it seems pretty clear that the “trans bathroom issue,” as he defines it, is part of Democrats being stupid. And so this is, I think, a, you know, really good example of this idea of what is disposable, what are the dispensable issues? What are the things that progressives need to just kind of get over because they are being their own roadblock? They’re creating, quote-unquote “cultural issues” that are obstacles to real progress, taxes and deficits and the economy, the economy, jobs, right? Things that Sorkin, you know, granted, he’s a screenwriter, but I think it speaks to the framework for how the Democratic party talks about politics, these things that he defines as quote-unquote “economic anxieties of the middle class.”

Adam: And we see this framework of culture war over and over again. New York Times March of 2021, “Why Transgender Girls Are Suddenly the G.O.P.’s Culture-War Focus.” Reuters, same month, same year, “How transgender rights became the focus of a U.S. culture war.” NPR, May of 2021, “How Anti-Trans Bills Evoke The Culture Wars Of The 90s.” New York Times, August of 2021, “The School Culture Wars: ‘You Have Brought Division to Us.’” And so the idea is that, again, for the left, culture wars are viewed as something that’s conditional and negotiable that we can sort of throw under the bus if it serves an immediate midterm electoral need or one we kind of assume exists? Obviously, we don’t know for sure if it does. When describing Republicans, it is a euphemism for, in this case, transphobia. So instead of saying ‘Why transgender girls are setting the GOP’s culture war focus,’ it should say ‘Why transgender girls are suddenly the GOP’s transphobic focus.’ It doesn’t name the specific mode of hate. It says, ‘Oh, it’s a culture war issue,’ an ideological preference versus hating people who are a certain identity.

A New York Times headline from August 8, 2021.

Nima: That framework also suggests that Republicans are merely weaponizing something unimportant, that they are creating a war out of something that really shouldn’t be an issue at all, as opposed to framing it as they are inciting violence and hatred on purpose against entire communities of people for the explicit purpose of riling up their base or even getting new voters to, you know, come to their side because of these so-called “culture wars,” but they’re not actually meaningless issues, which the culture war label suggests, they are actually incredibly important.

And to speak to this more we’re now going to be joined by Max Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief of The Real News Network, a former editor at the Chronicle Review, and host of the Working People podcast. His book, The Work of Living, will be published by OR Books this Spring.


Nima: We are joined now by Max Alvarez. Max, so great to have you back on Citations Needed.

Max Alvarez: Hey y’all, thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be back.

Adam: So we are now talking about one of our favorite topics, which is the bifurcations conveniently of so-called “cultural issues” or “culture war” issues versus economic issues. I don’t think anyone’s more qualified to talk about this false dichotomy more than you are. So pretty much the pattern goes a few months before each election, midterm or general election, especially when it’s clear the Democrats are going to lose, as it is clear they’re going to lose in November, there’s an assortment of takes telling liberals and the left to compromise quote-unquote, “compromise,” on the so-called “culture war” issues. Now obviously, culture war has different meanings in different contexts. But a recent high profile example was the DCCC, which is the organization in charge of ostensibly getting Democrats elected to Congress, released a report, that they’re supposedly internally advising Democrats to concede on culture war issues, and if something like defund or police reform comes up to talk about how much they love cops, and if immigration comes up to talk about how much they are pro secure on the border. Now, this threw me into a fucking fit. I wrote an article about this, because now we’re saying, sort of culture wars is basically code for, it has nothing to do with superficial issues, because obviously, immigration and police reform are very much real material economic issues.

Max Alvarez: Yeah.

Adam: But it basically means something that is racialized or queer-ized, for want of a better term, that can be thrown under the bus to win over some ostensibly essential purple county voter. In your mind, when you hear the word “culture war,” increasingly, what do you hear, I want you to sort of talk about how slippery this term is, and how you perceive this kind of James Carville tick every few months to say, ‘Here’s this shit, we don’t really need to take that seriously.’

Max Alvarez: Man. So this is one of those topics that I’m so glad that we’re here having this conversation but I feel almost overwhelmed because I have so many things to yell about that I’m probably going to sound incoherent. I’m probably going to leave a lot of stuff out. So, we’ll see what we get.

Adam: All good.

Max Alvarez

Max Alvarez: You’re right. This is the kind of shit that we hear just perennially. I’m losing track of the number of times that we’ve had this exact same conversation. I want to respond to this question by first pointing out the obvious facts that Democrats and mainstream pundits love to forget, and in fact, they’re what I think is very strategic forgetting becomes infectious, you know, it trickles out to us, and we get swept up in the conversation that they want us to be having, not the conversation that we’ve been having for the past year and a half, and so I think it’s important to start here, because the obvious facts are that Democrats are in trouble, and what the Democrats are discussing right now ahead of the midterms, what this report about how to handle the midterms, what it says is that the Democrats need to find a way to repackage political cowardice as political strength, and I think that this is not a strategy, right? This is just giving your opponent what they want, and pretending like you want it more than they do, and Republicans are playing them like a fiddle.

Republicans have always wanted to quote-unquote “solve” most social and economic problems by throwing more money at police and policing the people who suffer from those very problems. For almost my entire lifetime, Republicans have figured out how to make sure that that’s the result that they get, whether they’re in power or not, right? You know, this is what it looks like when you have a party that is more committed to politics as a game of messaging, as opposed to a game of improving people’s lives, right? This is why they’re so quick to drop those constituencies that you were mentioning before, who are ostensibly represented by these quote-unquote “culture war” issues, because that’s what the Democrats have been doing. They’re like locusts, they keep hopping from constituency to constituency to see who will buy their, you know, bale of goods this time around, and if anyone isn’t buying them, they’re not going to reflect inward and say, ‘Well, maybe we need to work harder to keep those voters,’ they’re gonna say, ‘Well, we don’t care about those voters anymore.’

Adam: Because that’s not an option.

Max Alvarez: Yeah, we’re going to move on to the next group of people in the suburbs, or wherever and we’re going to adjust our message to them, and we’re going to keep sort of anamorph-ing our way into something that could just eke across the finish line every two and four years.

Adam: Yeah, because one of the little scams, obviously, is that all these pieces, again, from all these articles we’ve read, all the stuff we talked about, we talked about this at the beginning of show, they all start from the premise that these upwardly mobile, white swing voters in the suburbs are the only movable voters because those voters interests are a proxy for that of big donors in Wall Street. So it’s this great little scam, you can’t say we need to take this position because we need money from the same kind of big bundlers and corporations and everyone who works with Democrats are a bunch of consultants who want to rotate through corporate America so you find the demographic that’s the closest proxy for those interests, and then that becomes the thing we always have to win over even though statistically speaking, voters disillusioned with quote-unquote “defund,” which is all they ever fucking talk about, are not necessarily any more than voters who are disillusioned with a lack of passing the child tax credit or passing the Build Back Better Bill or protecting the environment, but only one becomes this kind of holy grail swing voter because their interests are aligned with the interests of the party elites themselves.

Max Alvarez: I think that’s exactly right. Again, kind of, proves the point is that this discussion about avoiding quote-unquote “culture war” issues and focusing on quote-unquote “kitchen table” or “kitchen sink” issues, is posed as a neutral, big tent strategy, you know, how do we market ourselves in a way that brings the most people into this political coalition? And I think we’ve all acknowledged that that is not the case, that’s bullshit. What you were doing is you were making active choices about which constituencies matter more to you and which constituencies matter less, and I think that in the piece that you wrote, Adam, you made, in many ways, the crucial point about this, right? Which is that the things that this report points to particularly immigration and police reform and discusses those as quote-unquote “culture war” issues, is absolutely batshit insane to me, because what is culture war-y about these, these are brick and mortar institutions, these are entire systems that are run and designed to police people, and you know, ask the people who are being policed whether or not how much money police get and what that money goes towards, is a quote-unquote “culture war” issue, and I’m speaking to y’all from Baltimore, where we cover this extensively, both in the city of Baltimore, we have, you know, a vertical called Battleground Baltimore, where we’re constantly kind of focusing on all the ways that the city and even the state just keeps throwing bad money after good at the police, and Governor Larry Hogan is out here, you know, he’s trying to run for president in 2024, so he’s out here, trying to make political hay out of this quote-unquote “refund” the police campaign, when as writers like Brandon Soderberg have pointed out, the police were never defunded here. In fact, they got more money, and in fact, the crime did not go down. So, where’s all this coming from? But it gets even deeper than that, right? You know, as you guys have talked about brilliantly so many times on this show, as I’ve tried to talk about elsewhere, the whole system of policing is our society’s go-to pain management response that we use to treat and neutralize the symptoms of a broken economic and social order, because we refuse to actually address the root causes of that.

So the very nature of policing is economic, it is tied like a snake eating its tail, it’s like the more economically disadvantaged people are, the fewer opportunities there are, the fewer resources there are for them to live comfortable, fulfilling, dignified lives, the more that they are going to commit the kinds of crimes that are more heavily policed by police departments, like the ones here in Baltimore, and they’re going to be shuttled into prisons, and it’s going to just keep feeding the cycle that we’ve seen not work for decades and decades, and you know, this is like something that the police accountability report host Stephen Janis, Taya Graham cover every week on their show in the Real News, they talk about the political economy of policing, and they’ve been showing how it’s not just in the cities, it’s in rural counties. There’s one in West Virginia they’ve been looking at, where you see how this sort of basically, poor township is relying on the police to generate revenue for the city, and the police are effectively fleecing residents and any people who are unfortunate enough to pass through, they’re taking them by the ankles, turning them upside down and shaking everything out of their pockets, and that’s where those resources are going, and as you pointed out in your piece, Adam, if you are someone who’s on your way to your job, and you get stopped and you get sucked into this Kafkaesque prison industrial complex, your entire economic existence is going to be turned topsy turvy. But it doesn’t just stop there.

We can actually look tangibly and non culturally at other examples like how in Alabama the state used $400 million in federal COVID relief funds to build more prisons. So like, just like with police, and with the prison system, all that money is money that is not going to other areas of need, and so in that way, when you’re talking about defund the police, and it’s turned into this sort of media spectacle back and forth culture war B.S. discussion, we completely lose sight of the fact that it’s like no, we are channeling resources to those things, we are taking resources away from the people who desperately need them, and the people who are left to flounder as a result of that are the very constituencies that the Democrats right now are saying, ‘Well, they’re not our target demographic right now.’

Nima: Well, I mean, I think part of the issue is, as you’ve been talking about Max, it’s not even about trying to police our way out of poverty, that trying to make fewer people impoverished or living precarious lives is not actually the goal, right.? So it’s just pumping more money into these police and surveillance engines because, as you also brought up, being policed and surveilled to death isn’t assumed to be part of quote-unquote “white American culture,” so therefore, those who are policed and surveilled to death, that’s just part of some alien culture we learned, so then it becomes fodder for a culture war. And so where I kind of want to take this conversation, though, is to this idea of nostalgia, because even saying “culture war” has this kind of romantic sense that there was a time when we all shared culture, and typically, you know, this kind of mono cultural moment, whether it’s like Ed Sullivan, or whatnot, is clearly before the popularization of the term “culture war,” which really started in 1991 and the subsequent then PC ’90s, but this idea that the ’80s or before that the ’50s, were a time of broad consensus, right? This lack of quote-unquote “polarization,” and that people largely agreed on a shared reality is in itself this manufactured history. So Max, I’d love for you to talk about this kind of nostalgia piece from the time before culture consumed us all. What does this mean in effect, right? What are the causes that this kind of nostalgia trap purposefully sidelined?

Max Alvarez: I’m glad that you mentioned because I was going to say, we got a shout out my boy David Parsons, because this is a classic nostalgia trap — great podcast, everyone should check it out. But it is a nostalgia trap, because, you know, I didn’t think about it necessarily in these terms before we got talking, but I guess I’m going to vamp a little bit, because I think it’s a really interesting thread to tug on, because where I’ll end up in the conversation before we wrap up is kind of, again, the commentary on, pop culture as it exists today in the digital ecosystem that we have, and that kind of weird meta politics that have emerged from that, but if you’re looking backwards, we’ve always had some form of this type of culture war thing. It’s just taken a lot of different forms, and I think that one of the most consistent forms that you see it take is what you just described, Nima, it is a perennial mechanism for creating an other that is always threatening to take what’s yours. I think that that is the DNA of “culture wars” in the United States, whether it was the yellow peril, right, I mean, you can go back and look at cartoons drawn of Chinese immigrants, you know, and freed slaves or Mexicans, you know, coming to take farm jobs, right? We always still adopted the same sort of chessboard in the culture war in the past by other-izing these quote-unquote “barbarians at the gates,” these sort of other alien beings who were in some way threatening our ways of life, and that galvanized us to certain political ends, often very ugly ones, but it’s never not been there. It’s whether it was the Irish, whether it was Native Americans or like I said, whether it was Chinese immigrants, whether it was women voting, right, for Christ’s sake, I think like in that way, if you look at it in that historical perspective, culture wars have always been, if not manufactured, then always stoked by interested parties that have a very vested interest in keeping working people at each other’s throats.

Adam: Well, that’s the thing, right? I’ve been guilty of this before. I think I’ve said maybe once or twice on Twitter, look, Tucker Carlson is now doing culture war shit, and that’s such a gross euphemism and I actually sort of think that isn’t, should be described, because everything I would ever consider Tucker Carlson talking about culture war shit, is him stoking racism, transphobia, homophobia, these are specific forms of demagoguery and incitement against vulnerable populations, “culture war,” in some ways, kind of flattens that. It says, ‘Oh, this is all just kind of this frivolous other thing,’ which is why the slipperiness of the definition, which we’ve dissected now to death, but you can get to a point where people say, ‘Oh, well, Democrats need to just punt on cultural war stuff,’ and it sort of seems sensible, but culture war is —

Nima: Just allow entire communities —

Adam: To just die. And it’s like, well, abortion, because the abortion was the is the classic culture war issue, every single discussion of culture war, we talked about this, again, a bunch, they say abortion is culture war, it’s like, women having control of their sexual faculties is probably the most urgent economic issue for women. So if that’s culture war, and the fate of millions of largely Latino immigrants is culture war and Black people’s relationship with the carceral state is culture war, then how am I not supposed to get to a point where culture war is just a word for identity based oppression that is extremely economic in nature, that doesn’t affect people who look and sound like Adam Johnson? You know what I mean? It’s just a proxy for shit that doesn’t affect straight white guys.

Nima: It’s a proxy for anything that isn’t, like, the Dow Jones average, right?

Max Alvarez: Right. No, I think you’re exactly right, I guess, again, even if we evacuate the various iterations of these quote-unquote “culture wars” of their content, and just look at their form, that’s really what they are designed to do. They are designed to be a process by which we determine whose lives and needs and concerns are not important. If we subsume something into a culture war, then we determine which side we’re going to kind of lean into, or we say, you know, none of this is a political concern, and thus, we have come up with an effective way to drop entire constituencies, and this is why I think that a big part of the problem that we’re trying to discuss is that we only tend to discuss that problem as it exists in the realm of electoral politics, and so we start taking the terms of electoral politics as the end all be all of this issue, and I’ll explain what I mean. One of the I think, kind of, you know, I’m going to die on this hill, but I keep beating, you know, this dead horse of late, but I think that one of the reasons so many working people are so exhausted and fed up with electoral politics is because, by definition, it does not provide us with pathways to finding collective solutions to our problems. Again, that is not the nature of the system, the nature of the system is to split us up, to pit us against one another, to put us in competing camps that are in this perpetual tug of war over power, and, you know, are constantly trying to get it back if we ever lose it, right? But like, again, we are not the famous Twitter adage that culture wars are not meant to be won, they are meant to keep going, and that’s effectively what they do, and I think that after a while, if people get invested in those things and they see how much that energy dissipates into nothing and how much their actual concerns are taken advantage of by a political establishment that just wants to control its realm of government or what have you for a certain amount of time, then you’re going to kind of give up on that system altogether, and this is why I think it’s important to think about these quote-unquote “divisive culture war” issues in other arenas, like the labor movement.

I think that there are a lot of instructive and hopeful things happening in the labor movement, even though the organized labor movement is at its kind of lowest ebb in many, many decades, union density is at its lowest point in a long, long time, right now. So there’s a lot to be not hopeful about. But that’s also why it’s important to think about how is the labor movement approaching these quote-unquote “culture war” issues, because the labor movement, and this is something that organizers tell me all the time and something workers tell me all the time, the labor movement will die if it does not come to actual solutions on these quote-unquote “culture war” issues, because the labor movement needs to grow, it needs to find ways to bring younger people in, it needs to find ways to expand into non white populations, people who are working different types of jobs, who speak different types of languages, who face different challenges on the shop floor, right? I’ve spoken to a trans pipe fitter on a shipyard who talks about the need to create a sort of working environment in which she can be herself and her co workers can be safe, and all of them can fight for what they need, and they deserve. That’s not a culture war issue. That’s not a divisive issue. That is, how do we as a workforce, figure out how to band together and come to a solution so that our co workers are accepted, that we maintain our power as a collective union, or as just a collective workforce? These are not sort of the kind of pick and choose issues that they appear to be in our electoral politics, and in our media, every time a midterm election comes around, these are life and death issues for a movement that absolutely needs to resolve them in order to build power for working people, and to grow the movement that we need to see in this country. That also applies to discrimination on the job, harassment on the job, again, like these are not divisive culture war issues.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, it has so much to do with this silo-ing of identity, right? This idea that there are quote-unquote “workers” over here, but then those same workers aren’t also trans or Black or women or immigrants, right? That it’s just there’s this made-up worker, quote-unquote, “worker,” which is, you know, the hardhat-wearing white guy with a handlebar mustache, who somehow is divorced from all other culture, isn’t harassed by cops, which chances are, he also is, right? So it’s like, even the term culture war is itself dismissive by definition, it’s supposed to be this thing that is less important, because it doesn’t affect quote-unquote “real people,” and so that’s the way that you get to, you know, scare politicians by saying they’ve gone too far when they haven’t gone fucking anywhere, and so you start pulling all this back, and you get to this assumed default voter, right? This like, who is that fake default voter and why must they always be appealed to and how somehow are their interests exactly the same as capital, and have nothing to do with the varied identities of how people are workers, and also parents, and also immigrants, and also grandchildren, and also Black or trans, or, you know, Indigenous and all of these things kind of work together so that you get this dismissing anything that actually might affect people’s lives. Unless those people have stocks that they’re really paying attention to. Can we talk about how that kind of definition of who people are, is used so much in political commentary to just skirt all real issues, and sweep them up into this idea of that’s just a culture war and you’re not talking about the real kitchen sink, bread and butter issues?

Max Alvarez: Right. Well, I mean, I think that you can, again, it’s so easy for the political establishment and for pundits in, you know, corporate media outlets, to spin this into a never ending conversation, if they never actually fucking talk to workers once in their life, right? Or if they do, they just find the one Joe the plumber guy, you know, like, who’s been kind of vetted to say, oh, yeah, this guy’s got the message that we want. And this is, you know, a very, very long and big problem that we have, you know, in our political culture, where I always feel bad kind of making this point to folks because it feels like such a lazy and obvious one, but it’s one that we seem to always forget, but we’re living in a very big goddamn country, right? We’re talking about hundreds of millions of people on any job site, you’re going to have the, you know, annoying ass troll-the-libs Trump voter, you’re going to have the blue haired progressive person again, the point is, is that, unlike in politics, in movements like the labor movement or in other realms of organizing, you actually have to find ways for those people to come together and find common solutions to their problems. Again, in electoral politics, you absolutely do not have to do that. You just keep playing this kind of shuffle, where you have that cookie cutter, and you wait until you find the person who fits it, and then use them as a political prop for as much as you possibly can, then you drop them like a bad habit when they no longer serve your needs. There are two examples that I would point to. One is on the right, every election year for as long as I can remember, Republicans, I guess at least since Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth, that’s when it became more of a thing, I think, but every year since then, every time there’s an election, Republicans love going to coal country, whether they’re in West Virginia, whether they’re in Kentucky, whether they’re in Alabama, they love talking to the humble coal miner, as this kind of perfect avatar, a lot of them are conservative, right? You know, they seem like that perfect archetype of someone working in the rough neck trades who embodies that sort of grit that we’d love to idealize in the American spirit. So I’ve been seeing this, we’ve all been seeing it pretty much every election cycle for as long as we can remember. Since April 1, 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in deep red Alabama have been on strike against a company that has screwed them over, that forced them into a shitty contract when their previous company went bankrupt, and that promised them that they would get a better contract if they could turn that mine around which the workers did. Before the pandemic, they had made that mine more productive than it ever had been, and then when the next contract negotiates, and came up, Warrior Met wanted to take more from these workers, these workers who say we never get to see our families, we are working seven days a week, nearly a mile underground, and we only have two points on our report card so if we go and see our wife in the hospital, that’s a point off of our tally, and we could end up losing our job. Where has right-wing media been? They’ve had almost a year to make this an issue, they’ve had almost a year to show their actual support for the humble coal miner, and they haven’t said shit, and this is where you really see that lie because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m just bashing Democrats here, I am tired of all politicians and all pundits using working people as political props to advance their own agenda, and then showing at the slightest sign of trouble how quickly they will drop them, how little they actually care about their lives.

Striking Warrior Met Coal miners picket outside BlackRock in New York City. (Rainmaker Photos / MediaPunch / IPX)

Adam: Because that’s the scam they pit this false dichotomy both ways because when Bernie Sanders was talking about Medicare for All and, you know, jobs guarantee and free college, they’d say, ‘Oh, well he’s not going to solve racism,’ and then literally the same pundits, literally, turn around the second all the quote-unquote “economic populism” falls by the wayside and they say, ‘Why don’t we just turn up the racism dial a little bit?’ I mean, again, the DCCC was two fucking topics and then entire Politico article, one of them immigration, one of them reform the police, are we going to sit here and act like that’s not racialized? And that’s what made Clinton’s 2016 campaign such a whiplash when she just adopted all this nonprofit kind of antiracist speech because in 2008, when she ran against Obama, she did the exact opposite, constantly, remember hardworking real white Americans, remember that? So again, it’s this game, they play off each other, and I want to talk a bit about something that I think plays to that same scam, which is after the 2016 loss, so many people, I kept a list actually, David Brooks, Mark Lilla, Bill Maher, it was everybody, even I think Freddie deBoer, they blamed the loss on trans bathroom issues — this is trans, there’s always a parenthetical trans rights to this — and I feel like we have to, I feel like we have to talk about that, because when people talk about culture war issues that we should punt on or dismiss trans issues come up, and as you know, Max, in your work, trans people are disproportionately poor, they’re, you know, it’s not a significant percentage of the population, which everyone always points out — but then again, if we throw people under the bus, because they represent a minority of the population, then what do we fucking doing here, right? Oh, sorry, you’re not statistically relevant enough, go fuck yourself — that they’re disproportionately more likely to be homeless, they’re more likely to be at risk, they’re more likely to make money in the informal economy, right? And so this is from a labor organizing perspective, albeit again, not the sizeable chunk of the population, but this is a working-class constituency that is oftentimes treated like some kind of boutique nonprofit, liberal issue, and these are the people you need to be recruiting if your job is to create a working-class coalition, and then there’s the secondary issue of why would I go to bat for an organization or a movement or a labor union that’s going to sell out trans people at the drop of a hat? Because there’s some consultant who did some calculus that says, ‘Oh, we can pick up five votes in Fairfax County,’ and I think that this constant debate about what demographic we’re going to fucking throw under the bus because of some midterm electoral process, it really breeds cynicism. I mean, I think it breeds a lot of cynicism. And I think that this idea that, because again, I think you get to the issue of, you know, they say, ‘Oh, are pronouns really that important to the quote-unquote “average” American?’ Well, we can teach the average American, then guess what, they’ll get over it, just like they got over gay rights 10 years ago, and you can recruit trans people into your movement, because why would I join a movement if my basic humanity and basic identity is going to be constantly demeaned and trivialized? That’s what I don’t understand, and I think people who, again, I know, Max, you’ve come up with this a million times, I don’t want to act like I’m sitting here, like I’m a working-class whisperer, I’m a fucking podcaster. I don’t have a real job. But we constantly hear people talk about well, you know, if you talk about the pronoun stuff, it’s going to alienate people, and it’s like, you know, maybe in some context, but that’s what political education is, and for all the thousands and thousands of trans people or even just millions of queer people in general, why would I want to be part of your movement if you’re going to be so fucking glib and dismissive of something that I’ve told you is important to me?

Nima: And that’s extremely easy to learn about.

Adam: Yeah. You know what I mean? That’s the thing I keep coming back to is anyone who’s tried, you can’t organize a fucking Starbucks union, and be like, ‘Oh, fuck your pronouns.’ I mean, that would be impossible. These are workers, these are workers that are easily unionized and there’s fucking millions of them.

Max Alvarez: Right. I mean, I think it was Michael Brooks, rest in peace, who said on my show, about Adolph Reed, that one of Adolph Reed’s favorite quotes is, ‘What organization in America has the largest number of trans members in its ranks?’ It’s collectively the AFL-CIO, right? I mean, so like, you know, I get the point that Michael and Adolph are trying to make there, which is kind of the point that you’re making here, and I was like, well, they’re human beings, right? I mean, again, I’m losing my goddamn mind here, because essentially, the conversation that we’re having is which human beings are we going to throw under the bus, which human beings are we going to sort of sacrifice on the altar of whatever brand of normalcy we want to hold up? And again, we’re holding that brand of normalcy up for a party to win an election and then squander its goodwill, and then be back in the same goddamn position. So it’s, we’re not, not that there’s ever a good reason to sacrifice, you know, people in this way, but when you look at what we’re actually sacrificing one another for that’s when you really get that pit in your stomach, and you’re like ‘Jesus, is this what the political culture has become? Is this what we have become?’ And I think that that’s really where this conversation sort of signals the much larger problem, right? Was that this is kind of what people are reduced to in such a sick political culture where human life is valued so little, and, you know, this sort of way of understanding society as this kind of constantly rearranging chessboard in, for what is for most people, a sort of sport, right? I mean, it may be a high stakes sport, but politics for a lot of people is a sport that you engage with through your phone, through your computer screen.

Adam: Before they go work at Uber or Walmart or as a PR consultant. They don’t give a shit.

Max Alvarez: Yeah.

Adam: The party’s run by total fucking sociopaths.

Max Alvarez: Right, and going back to your original point, is that, well, it’s very much not a sport for the people whose lives are going to be directly impacted by the decisions that you’re making right now and yeah, if we cannot even talk about, because the Democrats — we’ll go back to them — they’re always saying, ‘Our democracy depends on this, our future depends on this,’ and that’s why we need you to vote. It’s like, okay, well, if that is really the case, then why are we not trying to bring in as many people as possible? Why are we trying to take this sort of narrow view where we can, you know, carve out just enough of a critical mass of people who are willing to, you know, punch a hole in a card come November, and leave everybody else by the wayside? Like this is, I think, what is really just sort of baffling to the point where I’m almost losing my words, but it really is that simplest thing like, well, you know, all of these people are human beings who don’t deserve to be treated with such disregard, who don’t deserve to have their basic humanity, and really, that’s what we’re talking about here is, do we have a society in which the humanity of people is recognized to the point that they could just live their damn lives, right? Whether we’re talking about disabled people, queer people, people of color, poor people, the case time and time again, is no, that’s the goddamn problem. The problem is not how do we sort of carve or gerrymander some weird Frankenstein’s monster constituency out of this broken society and make that seem like it’s some sort of win when it’s really not?

Nima: Right. Well, I mean, it’s all built on the assumption and the insurance, that the balance of power will never shift, and so I think that the idea of who holds, you know, a monopoly on power, you know, and that’s kind of couched into what you mentioned earlier, Max, this idea of, oh, it’s, uh, if other people, other communities, other identities have their own ability to wield power, that is going to be a threat to my way of life, which is really just a threat to a monopoly on power, and this idea that everything is kind of in service to “we,” quote-unquote, the white American male who is assumed to be the only, you know, kind of important constituency, has treated everyone so terribly, that if anyone else gains power, in some kind of parity at all, that the white American male will be so under threat, that, they will have to experience what they have done to the rest of the world for so long, and I think that’s such an animating horror that has turned into, you know, so we have to dismiss it as something that is purely this cultural battleground, and not about anything quote-unquote “real.”

Max Alvarez: Right. I just wanted to make this point about the monopolization of power, right? Because I think that that’s the one thing that’s been missing from the conversation so far, because I think that we have rightfully pointed out that the way that the political and media establishment talks about quote-unquote “culture war” issues is such bullshit for all the reasons that we’ve laid out here, right? It’s not just culture, right? What does culture mean? What does it serve to have a culture war where the end result is whose needs and concerns are going to get dropped and which constituency are we going to celebrate and value this election cycle, yada, yada, yada. Now, on the other side, there are other ways that people, working people, people in the middle class, people in the upper class think about culture wars, that isn’t just what the Democratic consultants are describing it as, and I think this is something that we on the left need to understand. Because certainly not all people, but a lot of people hate quote-unquote “culture war” issues, because they hate the ways that these issues manifest in our political and popular culture, right? They hate the version of it that they see, and in fact, we hate a lot of the same things, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to kind of point out that like, yeah, like, that is a culture war thing and it sucks and here’s how we should address it, and like what I mean by that, is that one of the reasons that I think we do focus on cultural issues so much, because we just saw it with, you know, the latest uproar about Joe Rogan. That was a culture war issue. Everyone was getting involved, everyone was kind of trying to influence the conversation, and everyone was trying to kind of, you know, have a hand in shaping the situation as it unfolded, and then everyone was kind of, you know, saying, ‘Oh, we need to we need to defend Joe Rogan at all costs’ or we need to do this, we need to do that, ‘Cancel culture is out of control,’ and again, we were kind of missing the point, including on the Left, where people were saying like, ‘Oh, if we, if we say we want Joe Rogan censored then we’re going to be sorry, you know, when it comes after us,’ it’s like, motherfucker, it’s been coming after us. Again, you’re missing the point.

I think the point is that one of the reasons that so many of us on the left, on the right, and elsewhere focus, so much of our energy on the realm of online discourse or just discourse in general or popular culture is because it is one of the few, if not the only, realm of life where it feels like we still have some pathetic modicum of power to shape the world that we have to live in, right? You know, when no one has any power, when they’re dealing with their bosses, or their landlords, their politicians or the private companies that they purchase from, we naturally gravitate and channel our energies toward the few realms where it does feel like we have, again, some modicum of power to influence and shape the world that we live in, and for a lot of us, that means trying to exert our will by trying to build and assert some kind of power in culture, in discourse, in the stuff that we’re all seeing and talking about, this is what Trump gave to so many people, right? Trump spoke to the disempowerment of a lot of people, to this feeling that a lot of people genuinely felt, you know, especially in the economic realm, but not only the economic realm, that you know, you are powerless, you have had power stolen from you, and you feel it, you know it, and what Trump offered was not a legitimate form of actually empowering working people, whether that be in their workplaces, whether that be in the political arena, what he offered them was a mirage form of power in the cultural realm, right? He offered them, and he was the tip of the spear, right? He was saying, ‘Use me to exert power over your neighbors, over your co-workers, over people you hate online, right?’ Even just wearing the Donald Trump hat in a supermarket you can see the visceral effects that it has on people and, again, when you have so little power elsewhere —

Adam: Yeah, because again, right-wing culture war is just racism.

Max Alvarez: It’s racism, but it’s power. It is power over people.

Adam: Yeah, it’s racism that gives you a sense of power that you don’t otherwise have because you’re powerless. But you know, that you go to bed at night, you know, you trigger the libs. That’s why he tweeted about Colin Kaepernick in the middle of his fucking presidential race that September and October of 2016, when the whole, you know, thing was going on, because it’s fucking red meat and he himself genuinely believes that, it’s not an act. But it yeah —

Max Alvarez: Well, and this is, this is what I mean when I just say that, that people hate the culture war for those reasons, because it’s not like, when I hear a lot of workers kind of tell me that they don’t like this or that culture war thing, they’re almost never talking about what the three of us would be talking about, right? They’re not talking about the politics of representation, right? And you know, they’re not talking about social justice in the terms that we would be, they’re talking about how goddamn annoying it feels for them to watch makeup commercials during a football game that are just so ridiculously draped in social justice buzzwords or Amazon commercials or the fucking House Democrats kneeling in kente cloth. That’s what they see as culture wars stuff, and again, when you have so little power over anything else, that feels like a landed blow, it feels like someone on the dominant side of culture is exerting that power over them, and they want to push back, and so I do think, you know, that it is important to understand that that is what the culture war means for a lot of people.

House Democrats kneel while wearing kente stoles, 2020.

Adam: No, that’s why it’s such an effectively slippery term because, you know, one hand they’ll say culture war is like some Oberlin sophomore saying banh mi is cultural appropriation and you’re like, ‘Okay, yeah, then maybe that’s a little silly or frivolous,’ and then they’ll pivot to immigration, or police reform, or something that’s like wait, or abortion or gay rights, it’s like, those aren’t trivial at all. Those are really important. That’s part of what makes me fascinated by the term is it sort of means whatever you want it to mean, it kind of means anything is vaguely racialized with various degrees of actual concrete importance.

Nima: While also serving as a gateway to the actual power wielding parts of politics. We were talking earlier about how anti-trans rhetoric violence is such a common gateway into more right-wing politics, right, that that’s this way in, it’s easy, and it’s visceral, and it’s disgusting, and it allows, I mean, we’ve seen this with, you know, you brought up Joe Rogan, right? We’ve seen how it’s an entry point. It’s this kind of, it seems almost a eh whatever, there’s like three trans people so, who you really offending, right? So because of that kind of narrative, that ugly, violent narrative, it also allows people to then go deeper into, you know, I guess what they would say past culture into kitchen sink politics.

Max Alvarez: Right, and so I agree with all of that, and I guess the only other thing I would add is, again, when quote-unquote “culture war” issues that as we’ve said, there are actually real human stakes for what we call these culture war issues, and you know, real flesh and blood people with lives and families in needs and wants and dreams are going to be hurt by us, you know, deciding that they are not worth our consideration. All those sorts of concerns are sucked up into this sort of simulation manufactured by the media and political establishment and that is what the culture war looks like to a lot of people. So when it just looks like commercials that are more inclusive, when it looks like the military having a rainbow flag on its planes, right, when it looks like the Democrats kneeling after, you know, another black person is murdered by police and doing nothing, all it’s going to look like to you is just the people with the monopoly on power sort of adopting the window dressing of one side’s concerns without addressing those actual concerns. So everyone’s pissed off. The right’s pissed off because they feel they’re, you know, version of culture is being stifled and yada, yada, yada and the left is pissed off, because we’re saying, ‘Well, like, no, that’s not what we want, we don’t want this to be a costume that people in power wear, and say that like, oh, we’re being like social justice-y.’ So everyone’s getting pissed off, because again, that monopoly on power is not changing, and culture, the realm of culture, is one of the few areas where we’re allowed to sort of fight over it, because we realize that when it comes to actually, structurally changing the sort of society in which these things matter, the people with the death grip on power are not going to allow us to do that.

Nima: Before we let you go, Max, we’ve kept you here for a while, but before we let you go, please do tell us about the book that you have coming out. Word on the street is that your book will soon be published. But tell us, Max, about your upcoming book, The Work of Living.

Max Alvarez: Thanks, guys, I appreciate it. The book, I’m really proud of, so this time last year at what was then the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the Omicron surge, I conducted a series of intimate deep interviews with working people around the country, not just about their jobs, but about their lives, you know, and their experiences of living and working and fighting through this year when it seemed like the world itself seemed to break apart. And, you know, I think that everyone, as I say all the time on my show Working People, as I say again and again in this book, you know, no two people’s stories are the same, because no two people are the same, and so we were already seeing it, as we move on into this new reality, where what used to shock and horrify us about COVID-19, and our catastrophic governmental and market responses to it becomes commonplace, when we just start accepting that as the new normal, you know, it’s going to be all that more important to look back and to see that sort of human record of how we thought and felt what angered us, what kept us alive, what small acts of kindness and solidarity made the past two years bearable for us, that’s the real raw, human stuff that we’re already forgetting, as we kind of enter the third year of the COVID-19 reality, and so I was truly honored and humbled to have the opportunity to put this book together for OR Books, I spoke to a whole lot of amazing people who I can never thank enough, including: Nick, a grave digger in New Jersey; Willie, a gig worker in Texas; Mx. Pucks, a burlesque performer in Seattle; Kyle, a sheet metal worker in Louisville. And so I think that, you know, it’s not, it’s by no means a sort of demographically representative, all encompassing book, you know, with everyone’s experiences in it, you know, there are 10 people in there who I think really give heartfelt and amazing and beautiful stories about their experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic, and as always, I hope that people listen to their fellow workers because I think we’ll learn a lot from each other if we do, and we will build kind of more solidarity with one another if we actually give each other that gift of listening to each other and honoring one another’s humanity as I’ve tried to do in this book, which you can get at OR Books or if you want to order it through your local bookstore, you know, that’s great, too. If you need to order it from Amazon, that’s, you know, I’m not gonna hate on you for that, but if you can order it from an independent bookseller.

Nima: That is a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Max Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief of The Real News Network, host of the Working People podcast. His book, The Work of Living, will be published by OR Books in the Spring of 2022. Preorder it now. Max, thanks again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Max Alvarez: Thanks, guys. Really appreciate it.


Adam: Yeah, I think it’s incumbent upon the quote-unquote “left” — I hate to say sort of lofty sentences like that — to show how these quote-unquote “culture wars” are actual material or economic issues that impact people’s well being and livelihoods. They’re not ideological, whimsical ideological preferences. Again, if I’m subjected to discrimination as a trans person, if I can’t find a job, if I’m humiliated on a daily basis by being misgendered, the downstream from these things, there are actual economic consequences. Now, obviously, we always have to prioritize economic issues, but many of these are not mutually exclusive. In 2022, you’re not going to be able to organize a union or have any kind of real world worker organization without embracing the so-called or engaging with the so-called “culture war” issues. So in no universe are they somehow separate from material or economic issues. That is a false binary created by pundits and media who still operate under this playbook of ‘Well, who can we Sister Soulja instead of moving and providing people with better health care, jobs, opportunities, higher wages, we need to kind of win over these purple county, upwardly mobile white voters so who are we going to fuck over this midterm election, because we need to go pick off some bigots and try to outflank them from the right because outflanking from the left is simply not really an option.’

Nima: And so much of this has to do with confusing effective right-wing messaging with what the issues are actually about, and so, a culture war issue could be something like the Dr. Seuss estate, you know, no longer selling books like And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, because of the racist stereotyping in it, or things like, you know, Pepe LePew being left out of Space Jam 2 or Big Bird on Sesame Street wearing a mask during a global pandemic. These things have entry points through culture, but are not actually culture wars, because they speak to larger issues, there are issues of what narratives are being portrayed about entire communities, about racism, about our history, about public health, and so even if the entry point is something quote-unquote “cultural” like Sesame Street or Mr. Potatohead, the idea that these are purely “culture wars,” just does right-wing messaging for it, right? It kind of carries water for the messages that the right is putting forward in terms of how to discredit entire issues as being frivolous, being unimportant, being silly, having gone too far, things have gone too far. It’s like the anti-PC police all over again. But framing it as “culture war” issues, does such a disservice to what the issues are actually about and really is all about right-wing framing and messaging, not about the issues themselves.

Adam: Right, because for the left it is seen as something that can go on the chopping block and for the right it’s a mirror kind of cultural neurosis brought about by a changing country. It’s not a vector of hate.

Nima: Right. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.